My GrabShare pulled up in front of an old terrace house in the same neighbourhood. There was a girl waiting outside the gate in a black razor-back dress, hair barely dried off and stringy. It was almost 10 in the morning and despite the world-weary scowl on her face she looked young enough – so I immediately assumed she was one of those college students trying to get to a morning class.
Settling into the front seat with barely a word in greeting to the driver, she pulled out a compact from her handbag and started applying her makeup. It was only then I realised she was wearing an engagement ring, its solitaire diamond glistening as she deftly patted her face, cushion in her left hand. Nestled on the same finger was a wedding band.
I was suddenly conscious of what I looked like from her perspective – Uniqlo jeans, simple plain tee and barefaced. All of 28 years old. No ring.
I’ve never been in a relationship and am not particularly enthused by the young adult dating scene, but recently I actually feel kinda bad when I meet other under-30s who are some form of married. Married for one or two years, just married, going-to-be married … Just the other day it was married with children. Children!
Then comes the inevitable thought: What am I doing with my life?
I am, glaringly, the girl without the husband.
The year most of us turned 26, five of my cell members got married. Closer to home, my cousin – also an ’89-er – got married. A JC classmate got married. Earlier this year, two members of the younger cell group I lead married each other. Next year, I will marry off two more.
“When will I get the honour of walking you down the aisle?” My dad likes to ask when we head off to another wedding dinner. All my other dad-friends have, with their own daughters.
My mother is less patient. “What’s the point of working so hard if you can’t even get married?” She’s repeated at various levels of frustration. “I think you’re too proud for marriage.”
On darker days, I wonder if she’s right.
With only one year of my 20s left to go, I am what the mainland Chinese will term “剩女”, a term I learnt from an SK-II ad about women over the age of 25 who don’t have husbands – literally, “leftover women”. These single women are commonly “advertised” by their parents at Marriage Markets, in hopes of being matchmade to other parents’ single sons.
When one of the “leftover women” being interviewed talked about the pain of disappointing her parents with her relationship status despite being gainfully independent, I cried.
It’s not that I don’t know all the commonly cited exhortations to single people in the Church. It’s a season of unimaginable freedom to do your own thing. To pursue God without any distractions. That marriage is super hard and won’t solve any problems. That Jesus really is more than enough no matter how you feel otherwise.
It’s not that these things aren’t true. But when the ones who are married are labelled as “taken” – where does that leave the rest of us ringless ones who … aren’t?
I cried with the 剩女 not because I desperately wanted to be married, but because like her, like them, I wasn’t married not because I didn’t want to be married – and how does one tell her parents the truth?
I am not married, because nobody wants to marry me.
There is a phrase in Mandarin – “没人要” – nobody wants. I heard it used as I was growing up, usually as a joke to describe singleness.
We all know Paul said that if we could help it, stay single (1 Corinthians 7:8). That would be the real joke; I don’t think I know any women in Church today who’d second that wholeheartedly. It is human to want to be chosen and loved. It is hurtful to consider even for just a moment that we belong in the Rejects Pile. The Bargain Bin. 没人要.
And I’ve seen too many women try to preserve their sense of self-worth by doing either one of two things in response:
1. The Spoilt Milk Mentality: Escaping the dreaded– and very imaginary – Bargain Bin by lowering their standards as they approach “expiry date“, settling for whoever is willing to take them
2. The Fine Wine Mentality: Compensating with power – inflating their standards and working hard to be better than men, believing they are too good for most men in the first place
Neither is helpful, and both choices have their own consequences.
But even if you’re not taking advice from Cosmopolitan, trying to remain as Christian as possible in life’s waiting room is admittedly harrowing. When my friend caught the bouquet at a wedding and I congratulated her with the traditional “You’re next!”, she quickly corrected me that it was God who determined who got to be married and who would remain celibate for life.
“Just moderating my expectations,” she said, and it broke my heart to know she was really just guarding herself against the familiar sting of disappointment.
“Do you ever want to be married?”
He was barely 21, and we weren’t exactly close friends. I wonder if my face coloured at the question. What’s the point of my answer, if wanting something doesn’t actually mean getting it?
But there was no judgment in my young friend’s eyes, no thinly-veiled accusation in his voice. I realised suddenly, in the safety of that moment, that I’d never allowed myself to even think of my own answer. I was always too busy smoke-screening the embarrassment with modern-day wisdom for singlehood, Christian version included.
As he held the silence that fell between us, the truth that surfaced in my heart was startling.
It was yes. And no.
Because yes, I’ve met and been friends with people whom I’ve wanted to marry. I may not have spoken highly of the institution and its pitfalls, but I’ve never been closed to the idea of marriage, especially when I really liked someone. I was never “too proud” for marriage.
But no, I don’t want marriage if God doesn’t need me to be married for the work He has already prepared for me to do (Ephesians 2:10). I want to be chosen and loved by someone, but I choose and love God and what He wants more.
A sermon I once listened to says it better: We have made marriage all about ourselves and what we want; whether we want to be married or not. But as servants of God it is not about us. If it’s better for His Kingdom’s work that I be married, I want to be married. I will be married. But if it’s better for His work that I be single, then I want to be single. It’s not about what I want. It’s not about me.
The day I gave my yes to Jesus, it was never about me anymore.
When God planted Isaiah 54 like a flag in the ground to mark my new season, it felt like a love letter straight to the deepest troubles of my heart.
“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labour! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord … “Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced … For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name …” (Isaiah 54:1-5)
For too long I had held the image of my husband in my head as the person who would protect and provide for me, feed and fulfil me. And when he failed to appear, year after year, heartbreak after heartbreak, the panic would mount – and so would the bitterness.
But now He had a name; again, God had given me Himself. I was that childless woman – ashamed, confounded and disgraced – but I wasn’t unwanted or leftover in the eyes of my Maker. Out of society’s Bargain Bin, I was chosen and redeemed at the highest cost (Galatians 3:13-15).
With everlasting love, He vows, “I will protect you. I will provide for you. I will feed you. I will fulfil you.” I am not the girl without the husband.
And in this season, my response to Him is a resounding “I do”.